This book was originally published in France as the opening section of the two-volume La littérature française: dynamique et histoire, edited by Jean-Yves Tadié (Gallimard, 2007), which presents French literary history from its vernacular origins through the twentieth-century, from Les serments de Strasbourg to Pascal Quignard. An eminent scholar specializing in late medieval lyric and an editor of Guillaume de Machaut's and Christine de Pizan's poetry, Cerquiglini-Toulet deserves to be better known among anglophone critics. (Cerquiglini-Toulet's The Color of Melancholy: The Uses of Books in the Fourteenth Century has also appeared in English, in a translation by Lydia G. Cochrane [Johns Hopkins, 1997]). Sara Preisig's meticulous translation seems to convey clearly the author's ideas (I have not compared the two versions extensively), although Cerquiglini-Toulet's French original doubtless offers additional pleasures for those who are able to encounter directly her lapidary, evocative style.
As the English title promises, A New Literary History of Medieval French Literature offers us a fresh perspective on the time-worn models of literary history; it purposefully departs from the standard generic overview inaugurated by Gaston Paris and his disciples in the late nineteenth-century. Rather than divide the hundreds of texts that comprise the diverse and long-lasting medieval corpus by genres, Cerquiglini-Toulet provides "a history of the concepts that allow us to account for the literary production of four or five centuries,"....a history of...literary acts" (3). For, as we learn in the end, the author intends to write "a history of literature before the age of literature" (129); she interrogates the ways that authors shape their texts and the ways that texts call forth audiences through the forms and language used by the works themselves.
Cerquiligni-Toulet's conceptual history thus considers the media, modes, and functions of early vernacular textuality, introduced in Part One of the book ("Writing in the Middle Ages"). Starting with the status of the French language itself (both langue d'oïl and langue d'oïl), she moves quickly to "The Materiality of Writing" (Chapter One) which examines the fundamental role played by manuscripts, first made of animal skins and then of paper; quill pens; and scribes, proverbially prone to error. Chapter Two considers "The Question of the Author," analyzing a wide range of authorial designations and functions, from socially-marginalized jongleur to devoted cleric and culminating in the figure of the self-conscious poet who reflects on his art and uses it to elevate himself both spiritually and socially. When the author names himself (or more rarely, herself), he often creates a fictional persona, who may figure as a character in the poem or narrative, who may play with the meanings of his name, who may portray himself as comically disabled or even impotent. Authorial self-consciousness and a sense of authorial glory run throughout the pages of early literature, from Chrétien de Troyes in the twelfth century to Alain Chartier and Georges Chastellain in the fifteenth.
Chapters Three ("The Work and its Audiences") and Four ("The Work and its Milieu") turn to reception and transmission. Cerquiglini-Toulet discusses the diverse ways authors position themselves before their patrons and readers in Prologues and Epilogues--as supplicants, as servants, as authorities--asking for benevolent attention or financial compensation. The authors may write to elite courtly audiences, to particular patrons, to multiple publics across a social spectrum, or sometimes to private readers embedded within larger readerships. Female audiences are often signaled out for special attention, in romances, in devotional works, and in lyric poetry. With pertinent examples from a wide range of works, Cerquiligni-Toulet illustrates the vibrant interactivity of medieval verse and narrative, as well as the vitality of the centers religious, courtly, and urban centers of production. She notes flourishing networks of writers, who used writing and correspondence to foster serious intellectual ties and to celebrate more ludic bonds accompanied by feasts and drinking. Many works are imbued with a strong sense of place, e.g., Provence, Champagne, Lorraine, Brittany. Such an approach animates and humanizes medieval texts that have sometimes appeared as rather faceless, generic entities; Cerquiglini-Toulet invites us to read medieval works as emanations of particular relationships, social settings, and geographical contexts.
Part Two turns to "The Field of Literature," which begins with "The Subject Matter" (Chapter Five). Taking off from Jean Bodel's well-known distinctions of the three "matters" of France, Brittany, and Rome (which correspond to the chanson de geste, Arthurian romance, and the romans d'antiquité), Cerquiglini-Toulet surveys "medieval taxonomies" (68), ways in which the authors themselves classified their work, as pertaining to war, to love, to God, or as spoofing established categories. Although late medieval writers begin to reflect self-consciously about the subject of death, it is not until Montaigne, explains Cerquiglini-Toulet, that the author himself becomes "the matter of my book" (79).
Chapter Six, "The Paths to Writing," considers medieval esthetic values: order, harmony, and beauty conceived as light. Cerquiglini-Toulet notes the tension, typical in didactic compilations such as the Ménagier de Paris, between the desire to convey harmonic order and the impulse to insert new materials, between "an esthetic of the whole" and an "esthetic of formal discontinuity" (84). She also considers the distinction between prose, linked to truth and the word of God, and poetry, in which meaning can be forced by rhyme. Poetry and prose are self-consciously combined in works as varied as Aucassin et Nicolette, Jean Renart's Roman de la rose ou de Guillaume de Dole, or Rutebeuf's Dit de l'herberie. A variety of verse forms were popular, and poets were aware of their appropriate uses within different genres and sub-genres. Finally, many metaphors are deployed for the process of writing itself: germination, fruition, pruning and grafting; gardens and orchards; the crafts of building (carpentry, masonry, and painting); the building themselves (castles, temples); and navigation.
"Modes of Composition," Chapter Seven, surveys different patterns and modes through which medieval texts are ordered: through numerical patterns (round numbers; sets of 3, 5, 50 or 100, and so forth); biography and genealogy (as in the chansons de Guillaume or the Grail romances); and the principle of continuation, exemplified not only by adaptors and continuators of Chrétien's Knight of the Cart and Story of the Grail, but also by the multi-branched Roman de Renart. A literary work's capacity to generate continuations and spin off sequels and prequels is a measure of success. "Models of Writing," Chapter Eight, examines the discursive registers and context through which many medieval authors order their texts and express themselves. Grammatical treatises provide a model not only for the actual rules of grammar, but also for other didactic works, most famously Alain de Lille's De planctu Naturae. Other "doctrinal" works dispense not grammar but rules of social behavior, as does the Doctrinal des Princesses et nobles dames. Devotional writing provides molds for secular texts as diverse as Alain Chartier's Breviaires des nobles, the fifteenth-century Evangile des quenouilles, and John Gower's Confessio Amantis. Furthermore, legal proceedings offer structure and terminology for a broad range of texts construed as judgments, debates, and quarrels, as in Alain Chartier's Quadrilogue invective (1422). At the end of the Middle Ages, the testament brings together religious and juridical frameworks.
The final section, Part Three, "Building the Sense," appropriately provides less of an end point than a series of critical openings, points for further reflection. Chapter Nine, "The Question of Literary Heritage," invites us to consider the "stakes" of medieval literature and the evolution of its meanings through changing modes of representation. Although binary thought, characteristic of the chanson de geste and early medieval literature, never entirely disappears, it is soon accompanied and progressively supplanted by more complex ways of thinking: paradox replaces opposition; intermediary states, such as sleepwalking and dreaming, become more interesting than static, polarized ones; chiaroscuro, ambiguity, indecision, disjunction, and perplexity are valorized and explored. Lines of demarcation between classes and professions dissolve; dream-sequences and metamorphosis allow authors to explore intermediary states and mutation of forms; allegories, in which figurative meanings can be calqued on many kinds of literal bodies, invite audiences to engage in interpretation, an "essential" aspect of medieval culture, in the author's view: "The Middle Ages were passionately interested in the hermeneutic process, reflecting on the notion of gloss, or explication, conscious of its benefits and its dangers" (127). Indeed, it is the fascination with gloss and "the play between invention and commentary" (128) that move medieval textuality into the realm of literature--the self-conscious construction and deconstruction of meaning that emerge in the poetry Villon and other late medieval writers. Professor Cerquiglini-Toulet concludes considering by other forms of "reflections on the literary act" (132) in late medieval literature--debates about love, about the Belle dame sans merci and Roman de la Rose--and ends by suggesting that the long-standing valorization of "novelty," often a return to earlier forms, gives way to something truly new, the novella.
What is also "new" about Cerquiligni-Toulet's approach to medieval French literature are the diverse works that constitute her literary corpus. Alongside canonical works and authors, amply represented, are scores of pertinent citations from lesser-known authors and works, some of them only recently revived in new editions, such as Partonopeu de Blois. To be sure, A New History of French Literature is not--and does not purport to be--either exhaustive or comprehensive; the fabliaux are infrequently cited, for example, and the monumental thirteenth-century prose romances are only briefly considered. But this observation is by no means intended as a reproach, for the exemplary texts Cerquiglini-Toulet cites respond aptly to her critical inquiry, reflecting her intellectual predilections and expertise rather than pre-conceived notions of the medieval canon. A useful "Chronology" provides a timeline juxtaposing historical events with key literary works. The Bibliography includes more than two hundred texts and authors, arranged chronologically by century.
Although she focuses on texts written in French, Cerquiglini-Toulet frequently includes examples from other European literatures, from Hildegard of Bingen to Dante, Boccaccio, and Chaucer. The book thus richly conveys the myriad intersections and communalities of French literature with other European traditions as it traces the dynamic conversations, shifting shapes, and complex critical interrogations produced by the treasure house of texts circulating in France before 1500.